It is difficult to overstate Jin Yong’s stature in Chinese popular culture. For readers new to his oeuvre, Jin Yong is the pen name for the novelist and journalist Louis Cha, who recently passed away at the age of ninety-four. Born in Hangzhou, Cha began writing wuxia serials in the 1950s after settling in Hong Kong. He enjoyed almost immediate success, and his career as a novelist enabled him to found his own newspaper, the Ming Pao Daily News. The Legend of the Condor Heroes, the novel that cemented Cha’s reputation as the king of wuxia, is likely best remembered more for its numerous film and television adaptations over the past four decades.
Despite first becoming acquainted with his novels in grammar school, I confess that I am only now taking an interest in the biography of Louis Cha. Quite to my embarrassment, having taken the novels as brilliantly escapist, I only recently discovered that Cha had been a vocal anti-Maoist who protested in print the violent excesses of the Cultural Revolution. In a recent interview with the New Yorker, Cha openly acknowledges that the plot of Condors mirrors the plight of Chinese refugees following the Communist takeover, torn between life in exile and the needs of the ancestral land. Yet, perhaps because wuxia novels so rarely touch upon the ugly realities of the twentieth century, and patriotism is so easily mobilized by the party, readers looking to Condors for a political allegory are likely to be disappointed—though they will find more than enough treasures to hold their attention.
A Hero Born is the first English translation of the Chinese novel’s opening volume. Any translation of a supposedly “untranslatable novel” is to be applauded, and Anna Holmwood has done a remarkable job. Set in the thirteenth century before the usurpation of the Song dynasty by the Mongolian empire, the narrative follows two Song patriots. The story begins when a short-tempered Taoist skilled in kung fu arrives in Zhejiang’s Ox village, setting in motion a chain of events that propel the descendants of the southern families into the encroaching Jurchen Empire and the vast Mongolian plains. Cha draws cleverly from Chinese legends and mythology to create a memorable cast of kung fu masters and Song patriots. The Seven “Freaks” of the South, the would-be shifus of the Condor hero, are introduced with a nod to the Eight Drunken Immortals. With nicknames like “Woodcutter Nan” and “Ryder Han,” each “freak” is defined by a distinctive style of kung fu, honed from years of experience in pedestrian trades like woodcutting or pickpocketing. Appropriately, the antagonists of the piece are the corrupt princes of the Jurchen empire and the jianghu villains who sell out their Song allegiances for wealth and reputation.
The titular hero, Guo Jing, is not particularly intelligent—he may even be a touch simple. But he wins over powerful allies with his naivety and kindness, from his multiple shifus to the formidable Genghis Khan. There is an irresistible lyricism to Guo Jing’s insistence on obeying Confucian ethical commands to the letter, never demanding a reward in return for a good deed, never telling lies, never going back on one’s word. The outcomes of Guo Jing’s actions often render the difference between naïve bravery and the assurance of experience a question of mere semantics. Guo Jing may be the purest distillation of a peculiarly universal hope that doing things by the book, in good faith, means fate will rise up to meet you halfway. And, though this may be more of a personal note, Guo is a rather pleasing antidote to the endless parade of impossibly precocious children and promethean techno-geniuses that populate TV and film.
True to Confucian dictums on humility, every master encountered by Guo Jing anticipates another master of greater skill, finesse, and understanding—and each holds that the true depth of their art is immeasurable. The plot moves at a cracking pace, however, and the wonderfully kinetic fight scenes are well served by Holmwood’s attentive translation. Holmwood skillfully mixes phonetic and literary translation, retaining the symbolic pleasures of names like Ironheart Yang or Skyfury Guo, and the enigmatic import of anda (brother) or neigong (inner strength)—words that preserve the generic feel of wuxia novels, in which immersion, even for the Chinese reader, depends on delighting in the peppering of antiquated vocabulary. That said, some of Cha’s style is inevitably lost, and readers of Chinese will miss the playful poetry that informs the kung fu moves, the pet names exchanged between Guo Jing and Lotus, and the intimacy of addressing someone “third brother” or “seventh sister” that, when translated, sounds like mere affectation.
Admittedly, Cha paints the novel’s historical context in broad strokes, and sometimes employs what could be called, if one were inclined to be ungenerous, stereotypes. Yet these are closer in tone to antiquated tropes, deftly deployed and always written with compassion. The Mongolians “may not have had the grand outward trappings of other great civilizations,” but “they were a refined people. They did not swear, even against their greatest enemies or in jest.” The Han Chinese are described as having less physical strength, but also as being “respected” for their skillfulness at “hand to hand combat.”
The setting of Guo’s adventures, Cha’s jianghu (literally translated as “rivers and lakes”), exhibits the carnivalesque joy of Shakespearean taverns but is closer in spirit to Arthurian romance, governed by a strict chivalric code that emphasizes, above all else, loyalty to the sect and filial piety. As in the sylvan enclaves of English romance, time moves slowly under the stars. Life can be immeasurably lengthened by the careful cultivation of the martial arts, and eighteen years are nothing when spent in the service of duty and pride.
Here, I think, lies the real appeal of Guo Jing’s adventures. The excitement of martial combat is always infused with the untainted pleasures of sacrifice and romantic longing. The men and women of the wulin, however comical, however physically or morally deformed, are driven by love and sacrifice. Even undisguised lust for power and brute vengeance are accompanied by unquestioned loyalty and romantic devotion. Even the ruthless Cyclone Mei and Hurricane Chen, a couple that spend their days killing unsuspecting peasants in order to practice their mastery of the dreaded Nine Yin Skeleton Claw, are described as deeply devoted to one another and members of an equal, if rather perverse, partnership. Blowing across the Mongolian plains as their names suggest, Mei and Chen are terrifying figures that signify the violence and lawlessness of sectless kung fu, but, in seeing them address each other deliciously as “my dear harpy” and “bastard husband,” we are reminded that they are never less than human.
The investment the novel makes in minor characters and their relationships makes Hero eminently readable for both fans of wuxia and newcomers to the genre. To nervous (or simply curious) fans of the Chinese original, I can genuinely say that reading the English translation has been a real comfort, like rediscovering an old friend that has been placed in safe hands. The Condors series as a whole endures as an unmissable entry in the wuxia genre. Yet Hero also stands on its own as an entertaining romance with universal themes and a low bar of entry. Excitingly, Holmwood’s translation ensures that the novel will be ripe for discovery by an English-speaking audience with little knowledge or even interest in Chinese popular culture.